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Monday, August 28, 2017

Don’t forget the Indian community in Malaysia

Even after 60 years of Independence, the Indian narrative revolves around a perplexing tale of discrimination and marginalisation.
COMMENT
santiago-indians-1
By Charles Santiago
As we meet here this morning to discuss the state of the Indian community in the country, I can’t help but think about our Independence Day, which is just four days away.
The country is set to celebrate Merdeka Day with much pomp and glitter. I drove past Dataran Merdeka and saw that the place was getting a makeover – including the building of a grandstand to accommodate some 10,000 people.
It led me to wonder if the aspirations of all Malayans, as the country was called before, would resonate throughout the celebrations. It led me to question if the contributions of Malaysians – all Malaysians – who made this country what it is today will be remembered and celebrated as well.
For in my mind, I see the Indian narrative revolving around a perplexing tale of discrimination, and marginalisation.
I say this because after 60 years, there has been no significant upward mobility in the Indian community.
The economic equity of Malaysian Indians is at 1.3% and not 3% as promised by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2013. And this 1.3% is likely in the hands of less than five people.
Income inequality is highest amongst the Indians. 81% of Indians only have three months’ savings at the most. Indians make up only a meagre 4% of university entries between 2014 and 2015.
And the community is further compounded by a sub-culture of violence and gang-related crimes, brought about by structural issues relating to discrimination.
Earlier this month, I attended a refugee festival where I had the opportunity of meeting refuges from a variety of countries. For the most part, all had the same story to tell: one of poverty, hopelessness, inability to find jobs, inability to put food on the table for their families.
The poor in the Indian community face similar issues as well. The only difference is that the refugees I spoke with are stateless and fleeing violence in their home countries.
Many years ago I warned about the emergence of an Indian underclass brought about by government neglect and the politics of disengagement.
Now it looks as if the Indians will descend even further to become refugee-like in their very homeland: isolated and marginalised – if the government does not act immediately.
This points us in one direction and that is the failure of the development model embraced by Malaysia, which promotes inequality and punishes the poor quite harshly.
So instead of listing out the success stories of the Indian community as the country approaches its 60th year of Independence, we are all gathered here talking about the continuing woes plaguing the community.
The New Economic Policy (NEP), was aimed at achieving national unity through the socio-economic restructuring of society and to look into ways of reducing the level of poverty in the country for all Malaysians. The catch-phrase here being “ALL Malaysians”.
But the NEP, which on paper called for the improvement of the economic status of all citizens, including opportunities for all, ended up according the Malays with special privileges.
Ironically, instead of creating a rich Malay community across the board, this model of development created a wealthy elite within the community.
Today the Bottom 40% (B40) of the Malays, Chinese and Indians are poor, marginalised, and left behind in the socio-economic and political development of Malaysia.
I see these people every week in my office in Klang. Whether the person is a Malay, Chinese or Indian, they come to me with similar problems – inability to make rent, put food on the table for their family, pay school fees, buy school books, find jobs or pay medical expenses as the cost of medicines are high.
Just two weeks back, a Chinese man told me that his salary has remained stagnant for years now while the cost of living has gone up many folds. He said that sending his children to school was becoming a problem.
Therefore, the Indian problem is not one which is exclusive or unique. It is a national problem and should therefore be handled more comprehensively.
The government has recently made an effort through the Malaysian Indian Blueprint (MIB) – another compartmentalised approach – to close the economic gap between the Indians and the rest of Malaysian society.
But the glue that holds the sexy narrative of the Blueprint will melt because it lacks sincerity and the political will to really fix the nagging, thorny issues that continue to haunt the Indians.
In addition, the MIB promotes a silo approach to Indian development without addressing macro-economic challenges affecting the poor such as low wages.
Today, we are presented with an opportunity to re-write the Indian narrative envisioning a better Malaysia for all. We need a radical new approach that harnesses the good of what works and changes what does not.
In this approach, the government can actually turn around the Indian community in the next five to seven years.
We demand that the federal government, including state governments, and this includes the states of Selangor and Penang, mandate by law or regulation…
1. an increase in the intake of Indian students into universities, vocational and technical centres and this includes opening up MARA to Indian students from the B40 group;
2. an increase in the awarding of government procurement contracts to Indian small and medium entrepreneurs;
3. an increase in employment at the federal, state and local councils;
4. an increase in loans and grants as well as easy access to funds to create young Indian entrepreneurs from the B40 category including women and single mothers;
5. to make affordable houses available to B40 Indians as a matter of urgency;
6. an increase in real wages across the board for all Malaysians, especially in jobs where the B40 group works.
It is the job and the responsibility of the government to make these changes happen, for the Indians are Malaysian citizens. And the general election is around the corner, and you know what to do.
Lastly, and (this is my hope) if I am involved in organising another consultation such as this, I hope it will be to celebrate the very many success of the Indian community as part of the Malaysian family and really, really hope that it is not about how Indians have become refuge-like in their own country.
Charles Santiago is MP for Klang. - Mkini

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